Social Media and Religion

I read yesterday’s article in the NY Times about how people are interacting with religion through social networking sites like Facebook and was amazed at the success of the Jesus Daily Facebook page. It is one of the most popular Facebook pages with over 8.5 million fans. I figured there should be a similar Facebook page that offers users a daily dose of Torah wisdom so I created the Torah Daily Facebook page this morning. The page quickly amassed 100 followers and will continue to grow. The Torah Daily Facebook page will offer daily inspiration from Jewish texts provided by anyone with some wisdom to share.

Here is the blog post I published on The NY Jewish Week’s Jewish Techs blog after reading yesterday’s NY Times article on social media and religion:

With about a billion users between Facebook and Twitter alone, more topics than just Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are being discussed on social media networks today. Religion is certainly one of them.

An article by Jennifer Preston in yesterday’s NY Times (“Jesus Daily on Facebook Nurtures Highly Active Fans”) reports that “while it’s too early to say that social media have transformed the way people practice religion, the number of people discussing faith on Facebook has significantly increased in the last year, according to company officials. Over all, 31 percent of Facebook users in the United States list a religion in their profile, and 24 percent of users outside the United States do, Facebook says. More than 43 million people on Facebook are fans of at least one page categorized as religious.”

The article was prompted by the wild success of the Jesus Daily Facebook page, which was launched by a diet doctor from North Carolina who posts a few motivational quotes from Jesus each day. The Facebook page, created by Dr. Aaron Tabor, has close to 8.5 million fans and, according to AllFacebook.com, in the past three months has had more daily interaction (likes and comments) than the official Justin Bieber page with 3.4 million interactions last week alone.

There are now over 750 million people on Facebook so it shouldn’t be surprising that users are interacting with pages to find an online spiritual community. If you’re already navigating around the Facebook site on a computer, tablet or mobile phone it’s much easier to read a spiritual teaching in your news feed than to actually attend a synagogue or church service.

Rabbi Laura Baum, a social media maven who is part of OurJewishCommunity.org was quoted in the article explaining how social media has changed our lives. She said, “There are those people who prefer to check out our tweets on their phone or listen to our podcast. I don’t think the use of technology needs to be for everybody. But we have found a community online. Many of them have never felt a connection to Judaism before.”

An increasing number of synagogues have found that it is much easier to connect to the membership through a Facebook page than through a traditional website. Like a website, the Facebook page is an efficient way of disseminating information for a congregation, but it adds the social interaction features that promote community and have made Facebook the killer app of social media. Linda Jacobson, the president of start-up congregation B’nai Israel Synagogue in Michigan has used Facebook to connect with members and reach potential members. “Our website is great for publicizing calendar events, displaying photos and telling visitors about our congregation. But Facebook goes well beyond that,” Jacobson explained. “It allows our followers to interact with that information and with each other. There’s an entire ‘backchannel’ that brings people together virtually to share photos from our congregational programming, comment on lifecycle events, create sub-communities based on interest categories and coordinate meals when there’s a death in the congregation.”

Jacobson seems to have put social media to good use because she’s seen her congregation’s membership rolls steadily increase over the past year. Rev. Kenneth Lillard, author of “Social Media and Ministry: Sharing the Gospel in the Digital Age,” was also quoted in the NY Times article and he concurs that social media tools like YouTube, Twitter and Google Plus in addition to Facebook represent “the best chance for religious leaders to expand their congregations since the printing press helped Martin Luther usher in the Protestant Reformation.”

Beyond official synagogue Facebook pages, there are many ways in which users are looking to Facebook for spiritual insight and education. Some popular Facebook pages have been created by rabbis in an effort to share motivational teachings from the Torah. Rabbi David Wolpe, the popular author and spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has a Facebook page that boasts over 19,000 fans. Wolpe utilizes Facebook to offer short sound bites that both motivate and challenge his readers. He makes a point of trying to respond to all questions on the page as well, which is not an easy task for a busy pulpit rabbi and a highly sought-after speaker like Wolpe. One follower asked if the rabbi had any marriage advice to which Wolpe responded simply “Shared values; forgiveness; deep attraction; resilience; luck; faith.”

One thing that social networking sites like Facebook have demonstrated is that one need not be an official religious leader, like a priest or rabbi, to dispense wisdom to help guide people in their daily lives. Many individuals and businesses offer a daily prayer or spiritual teaching to inspire their followers on their Facebook pages. Some Facebook users may post an inspirational teaching as a status update. There are businesses that post weekly motivational quotes on their Facebook page as a way to engage their following.

As social media increasingly become part of our daily lives, people will find new ways to interact with religion and spirituality. For some, it may be interacting with like-minded people on a synagogue Facebook page. For others it may be learning a different Talmud text each day through a Twitter feed. In the Digital Age, a minority of virtual religionists will emerge. These will be individuals who do not affiliate with a bricks and mortar religious institution like a synagogue, but are nevertheless engaged in many aspects of a faith community through social networking. Increasingly, people will say they are religious or spiritual or inspired by religious texts, but only because they have chosen to plug in and engage with social media.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Kabbalah Centre’s Berg Sent Packing from Newsweek’s List of Top Rabbis

**UPDATE** – Somehow I missed the fact that Yehuda Berg is actually still on the list this year. He comes in at #37 (down from #14 last year). The Newsweek/Daily Beast gallery of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis shows Berg in a photo with Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. Amazing. Just amazing. (Hat tip to Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, CEO of Synagogue 3000, for pointing out my oversight)

When I read Newsweek magazine’s expose of the Kabbalah Centre and its questionable foundation for a children’s school in Malawi founded with millions of dollars from Madonna, the first thing I thought about was the annual Newsweek list of the top fifty American rabbis (technically: the most “influential” rabbis).

Rabbi Yehuda Berg, the son of the controversial founder of the Kabbalah Centre, has been listed among the top five in Newsweek’s annual list each year. And each year, after the Newsweek list is published, there are those who argue that Berg isn’t even actually an ordained rabbi and doesn’t belong on the list. Some claim that he’s running a cult that is Judaism’s version of Scientology. And then there are those who believe that Berg isn’t a religious figure at all, but rather a businessman running a corporation that sells everything from red strings and holy water to books and astrology sets.

I immediately found it curious that the same publication that would expose such criminal income tax schemes, questionable fundraising practices and laughable merchandise sales would put the mastermind behind it all high on its list of the top rabbis in the country.

Well, sure enough the new list of the fifty most influential rabbis was published yesterday and guess who’s not on the list. Anywhere. Somehow the face of the Kabbalah Centre has disappeared from the list after being in the top five in prior years. I suppose it would have raised eyebrows even more had Yehuda Berg remained on the list only a couple week’s after the “Madonna’s Kabbalah Disaster in Malawi” article appeared. However, it would have been helpful had Newsweek/Daily Beast issued a statement as to why Berg was not included in this year’s list. It could be argued that he’s still very influential, but perhaps Newsweek is no longer regarding him as a rabbi.

I’m hesitant to criticize anyone else’s religious beliefs, however, I don’t think that what the Kabbalah Centre is producing is actually a religion at all. In fact, it’s not even fully based on the teachings of Jewish mysticism. From the Newsweek article, it looks like the Kabbalah Centre is made up of businessmen who have figured out ways to swindle people out of money, including celebrities like Madonna, corporations like Gucci, regular people buying $72 candles, and the U.S. government. The Kabbalah Centre has become classified as a Church by the IRS and they run everything (cars, houses, vacation homes, etc.) through the corporation. Add to that the scam they seemed to have produced with the foundation for the Malawi school, and I’m sure there will be a full-scale investigation soon that will end the Kabbalah Centre as we know it and return Kabbalah to its esoteric roots in the hands of the Jewish scholars of mysticism.

The good news about this year’s Newsweek/Daily Beast list of the top rabbis, in addition to them removing Yehuda Berg, is that it includes some wonderful colleagues of mine. Even though fellow social media consultant Esther Kustanowitz refers to the list as “My Rabbi’s Better Than Your Rabbi,” it actually does include some of the most influential rabbis in the American Jewish community. I was excited to see my classmate Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of the start-up minyan Kavana Seattle make the list this year. Additionally, it was great to see the inclusion of Rabbis David Wolpe, Rick Jacobs, Irwin Kula, Jill Jacobs, Ethan Tucker, Elie Kaunfer, Shai Held, Naomi Levy, Burt Visotzky, Avi Weiss and Steve Greenberg.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Bringing Light to Humanity on Hanukkah

Here is my Hanukkah message that was published on the Read the Spirit website. Read the Spirit’s editor David Crumm introduced my message by connecting it to the Retik family. Ben Retik, who lost his father in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, lit the White House menorah last week. Crumm wrote:

Ben’s mother Susan might have retreated from the world in her grief. Instead, she and another 9/11 widow founded BeyondThe11th, a nonprofit group that works with widows in Afghanistan whose lives have been devastated by war and terrorism. Talk about shining one’s light to the whole world! Despite their loss, the Retik family has made the planet a better and safer place through their charitable work in helping widows half a world away rebuild their families’ lives.


Hanukkah: From Darkness to Light

A Chasidic story is told of a man entering a dark room. He is overwhelmed by the darkness.
“Don’t worry,” said his friend. “The darkness hits only at first. Soon your eyes will grow accustomed to it, and you will hardly notice the dark.”
“My friend,” replied the man, “that is our problem. Judaism teaches us to distinguish between lightness and darkness. But unfortunately, by becoming too accustomed to the situation, we begin to think of the darkness as light!”
Distinguishing between lightness and darkness is so much a part of who we are as the Jewish people. Each Saturday night, we bid farewell to Shabbat by distinguishing between lightness and darkness. But we make other distinctions as well. We acknowledge the separation between holy and secular, and between the six regular days of the week and the holiness of the Sabbath. We also proclaim that God has separated the Jewish people from all other peoples. For we have been chosen by God to be a holy people.
But what does this “chosenness” really mean? After all, it might even make some of us feel uncomfortable being the “chosen people” around our non-Jewish friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I’m reminded of the famous scene from Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye calls out to God: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
Jewish people shouldn’t feel uneasy or uncomfortable with the notion that we are chosen. After all, it’s not about superiority or status, but rather responsibility. Jewish people have the responsibility to seek out justice in the world. We have to help repair our fractured world. The man in the Chasidic story wasn’t comforted by the fact that his eyes would eventually adjust to the dark—and he was on to something. It is our responsibility, as individuals and as a community, to see the darkness in the world and to create light.
This is what it means to be a people chosen by God. And this, I strongly believe, is the message of Hanukkah. Each night, we commemorate the miracle by increasing the light in this dark world. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that we increase the holiness; we don’t diminish it. Each night of Hanukkah, we increase the holiness in the world—and that is why God holds the Jewish people accountable. Why God has chosen us to be God’s people—responsible stewards of the earth, partners in fixing a broken world, and pursuers of shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice).
Jewish people have the responsibility to bring light to humanity through social justice. As a light unto the nations, we are obligated to think of ourselves and our actions as an example for the entire human race, outside of our own community. We must live our lives according to the words of God as articulated in our holy Torah: I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will protect you, and make for you a covenant, to be a light unto the nations.
To be a “light unto the nations” means that when there is darkness in our world, we must be the guiding light, the symbol of leadership, the beacon of hope, and the impetus for change. We must lead the way out of the darkness and into the light. We do this by realizing that our efforts at both justice and righteousness must extend beyond our own people.
SPEAKING OUT; REACHING OUT
As Jews, we have an increased moral obligation to respond, to speak out, and to take action against ethnic cleansing regardless of the ethnicity, race or religion of the people being victimized. We have experienced horrific darkness, but we have always persevered and found the light. If “Never Again” is to be our watchword, reminding us of our persecution, then we must remain true to it. We must live up to that phrase, and when we see darkness engulfing other humans, we must not stand idly by and be passive. We must act.
My teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches the following about Hanukkah: “Pessimists and assimilationists have more than once informed Jews that there is no more oil left to burn. As long as Hanukkah is studied and remembered, Jews will not surrender to the night. The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle.” If all peoples light a candle, our world will be a much brighter place for all of us.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

8th Night of Hanukkah

Last night was the final candle lighting of the eight-day Hanukkah holiday. It was also the only night that I didn’t have a chance to light the menorah with my children. I went straight from a private tutoring session to teach an adult education class, grabbing a quick bite to eat in between.

When I returned home at 9:30 p.m., my wife joined me to light the candles together. It reminded me of the Hanukkahs we celebrated together before children (“B.C.”). There was something quite spiritual about watching the flickering light of the fully lit menorah reflecting in the window.

We often think of Hanukkah as a children’s holiday with the dreidel games and gifts each night, but for just one night of this eight day Festival of Lights this year I really enjoyed being able to focus on the glowing candles without worrying if one of my kids was going to accidentally get burned while lighting the flames. It was nice to not immediately transition from the candle lighting to the materialistic gift giving, worrying that my children would enjoy and appreciate the presents we bought them. While I love sharing in the ritual menorah lighting with my children, the eighth night this year was a special gift.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Simchat Torah Mysticism in the Age of YouTube

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Google Images and YouTube videos are helping Jewish educators create new midrash and bring sacred meaning to age-old traditions. Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz created an innovative, interactive experience for the seven hakafot (circles) of Simchat Torah.

Her “Seven Dances for Simchat Torah in the YouTube Era” is available on the Sh’ma Koleinu website. Sh’ma Koleinu is an online center for spirituality and connection from Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, which seeks to bring sacred meaning to convey something of the deeper meanings of the High Holy Day liturgy.

Gurewitz’s Simchat Torah blog entry uses YouTube videos and Google Images “to try and tap into the different energies and attributes of the lower sephirot as encapsulated by the seven hakafot on Simchat Torah, with selections of images, stories and YouTube videos to explore the seven energies of dance.”

View her creation here.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Is Facebook Chametz?

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs

Is Facebook kosher? If so, is it kosher for Passover? I’m not posing the question of whether it is acceptable to log on to Facebook on the first and last days of Passover, when observant Jews refrain from using computers or the Web.  Rather, is Facebook activity allowed at all during the Jewish Spring festival?

In the early years of the Web, the recurring joke leading up to Passover each year was that Jews should remove their browser’s cookies before the holiday. Now, two rabbis have created a Facebook group named “Facebook is Chametz referring to the Hebrew word for leavened products which are forbidden during Passover.

Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit

It is true that Jewish people get a little more observant on Passover, so maybe it’s not a far stretch to assume that some of the less than virtuous aspects of Facebook may be put aside for the length of the holiday.The Facebook group created by Rabbi Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit, and later joined by Rabbi Ezra Weinberg, now has over 200 members. Its tagline is “I’m fasting from Facebook for Passover. You too, huh?” Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit (pictured) is a non-denominational rabbi, teacher, and musician. Ezra Weinberg is Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City.

Referring to the more spiritual aspects of Passover, Feinstein-Feit explains on the group’s Facebook page: “The Chassidic masters teach that the leavening we avoid represents our over-inflated sense of self. Get your Face out of the Book and cross into the liberation of Exodus, movement of Jah people… (at least for a little while).”

This is certainly an original way to look at the culture of this social media application, which has grown exponentially in the past few years. It’s also a refreshing way to look at the Passover festival. Too often, the focus of the holiday is strictly on food concerns rather than the “chametz” that resides in our speech and interpersonal connections.

I posed some questions about the “chametz” that resides on Facebook to Rabbis Feinstein-Feit and Weinberg:

Why did you create this Facebook group?


SYFF: The Chassidic tradition clearly links chametz with an inflated sense of self, egotism, and narcissism. Dietary shifts alone do not necessarily touch the roots of our inflated self-interest. I’m a fan of Facebook in general, but have noticed that using the network not only can distract me from other more introspective or meditative pursuits, but it can also induce comparing mind — “so-and-so’s life is more interesting, meaningful, fun, etc.” I wanted to create awareness around how Facebook can actually serve to alienate us, and to find support in abstaining from something that is so common-place.


EW: As someone with a strong Facebook presence among my friends, I personally found the idea of abstaining from Facebook a meaningful way to digitally disconnect from some of the powerful habit that pervades our lives. I also know a lot of Jews who don’t keep kosher for Passover or don’t feel connected to that aspect of the tradition. The “Facebook is Chametz” would be a way to bring chametz out of the realm of food and into the realm of our laptops and handheld smartphones.

How are you using Facebook/social media to teach your “Torah?”


SYFF: I try to “walk” my Torah, so to the extent that I publicize my life through Facebook is the extent I teach anything. (I help other’s teach their torah by developing websites and pushing their content through social media streams.)


EW: I would say I have not taken full advantage of Facebook professionally. But having over 2100 friends, it is not something I take lightly.

Will you really abstain from Facebook for all 8 days? What about Twitter or other Social Media sites?


EW: I will probably abstain from Facebook and Twitter all 8 days, because my Twitter account is linked to my Facebook.


SYFF: I have abstained from Facebook [on Passover] entirely for the past two years, and will again. Isn’t it amazing Twitter wasn’t such a big thing only a year ago? I personally think Twitter is quite a different social tool and may still post Tweets, but I don’t think I’ll follow anyone during Passover.

Should Jews (or all humans) abstain from Facebook year round and not just on Passover?


EW: Refraining from chametz, in my estimation, is less about haughtiness and more about breaking routine and remembering the deeper connections we have to God, our fellow humans, and the planet. What I loved most about the movie Avatar were the spiritual elements of the Navi people. They didn’t need devices and machine technology to connect to each other and the other life forms on their planet. Sometimes you can connect more by disconnecting. That is the essence of spiritual technology. Refraining from chametz, just like refraining from work on Shabbat, connects us to something deeper by disconnecting us.

So, the bottom line according to these two rabbis is that while Passover is a certainly a time for putting aside the bread and the cereal, it might be a good idea to unplug from the chametz of Facebook as well.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Hanukkah Lights

I once heard Rabbi Abraham Twersky tell a beautiful story that I found inspiring. As a young child, the rabbi explained, his mother would light one extra Shabbat candle for each child in the family. As his parents welcomed a new baby into the home, they would add another Shabbat candle. Rabbi Twersky recognized how warm it felt to know that there was more light in his home on Shabbat simply because he was alive. Certainly, his parents felt that the world was a little brighter because of their son, but this was a tangible way for him to embrace his importance and appreciation.

Similarly, on Hanukkah, many families participate in the tradition that each member of the household lights his or her own hanukkiyah. It is a way for each family member to contribute to the brightness of the Festival of Lights. Lighting the Hanukkah candles reminds us of the miracle told about the small cruse of oil that lasted for eight days in the Temple. When we each light the Hanukkah candles, we help keep this important story alive. Indeed, it is a story that is so much a part of our Jewish history and heritage.

There is something beautiful about the increased flames that illuminate from the Hanukkah lights on each successive night of the festival. A famous debate took place in Talmudic times concerning the order in which the Hanukkah lights should be kindled. The school of Shammai claimed that on the first night, eight lights are lit and then they are gradually reduced by one each night. The school of Hillel disagreed, arguing that on the first night one light is lit, and thereafter, the number is increased. Hillel explained that as we increase the light, we increase the holiness in the world. Of course, we follow the opinion of the school of Hillel.

The story of the Hillel/Shammai debate reminds me of the last night at the summer camp where I serve as rabbi and was once a camper. Once darkness has fallen on the lake, a torch is illuminated to kindle the large seven-branched menorah created by the late Irving Berg, long-time Artist-in-Residence of Tamarack Camps. The first candle is lit by the most senior staff members who “graduated” from their camper years in the late 1980s. The second candle is lit by those staff members who “graduated” in the 1990s and so on until last summer’s class of former campers approach the menorah en masse, arm-in-arm, to light their first candle as camp alumni helping the menorah to burn brighter. With each successive candle of the menorah, the holiness and joy of our camp community is increased. The burning flames remind us that our history is rich with the commitment of so many people at camp and within our extended community. We are reminded that camp is our heritage. And it is a warm and bright feeling.

During this Festival of Lights, occurring in the darkest season of the year, let us reflect on the brightness of our world. Let us remember that the world is a little brighter because we are alive. If we all keep that in mind, we will also remember to look for the miracles in our own time.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Shavuot: The Power of Community

Originally published as a guest blog post at Religion Transcends.

Tonight begins the festival of Shavuot, the holiday in which the Jewish people celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Perhaps, the questions about the revelation of the Torah (when, what, how, if, and to whom) are the questions that divide the Jewish people today more than any other questions. The divisions among the modern denominations of Judaism all stem from the question of how the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people. The way in which individuals in the Jewish community consider the event that occurred at Mt. Sinai several millennia ago has vast implications for their approach to the Jewish faith. The sheer magnitude of that event, however, should force us all to transcend denominational differences and feel the power of community – whichever community we choose.

Never has the spiritual force of revelation affected me more than it did on the early morning of May 31, 1998. I had recently graduated college and was spending Shavuot at a local synagogue, where I served as the youth director. The assistant rabbi decided that the congregation would offer an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot (study session) and then a dawn service just before 5:00 in the morning.

It was a memorable night with many opportunities for Torah study with several wonderful teachers including three eighth-grade day school students. With delicious snacks and caffeinated beverages, about thirty of us managed to stay up the entire night. We decided to hold the minyan outdoors in the courtyard so we could enjoy the sunrise while we prayed.

The Torah service that morning took on new meaning for me. The Torah was paraded around and I had the sense that we really were at Sinai claiming what God had lovingly gifted to us. As I stood at the Torah for my aliyah, the sky began to get dark again. The Torah reader pronounced, “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning…” As the words “thunder” and “lightning” were uttered, a huge thunderstorm ensued. The Torah reader managed to get out a few more words, chanting “…and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”

At that point, the sky opened up and the heavy rains began. We grabbed the Torah and ran inside where the Torah reading was completed. As I wiped the raindrops from my glasses, I remember thinking that this must be divine revelation. This was the epitome of holiness. This existential experience was full of awe and majesty, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts. Best of all, it was shared with community.

This was a liminal moment in my life. That experience has had a lasting effect on my life in the decade since. Being shaken by the thunder, seeing the lightning, and hearing the words of our Torah convinced me that I really did stand at Sinai. We were all there together. As a community.

That was my revelation. What was revealed to me? The power of community. Was I really at Mt. Sinai several thousand years ago? Maybe not physically there, but with this community, during that early morning storm it was as if I were there. And that is the message of Sinai. A community gathered to receive a gift from God. How that gift is interpreted thousands of years later should not take away from the magic of that moment.

At a time when some segments of the global Jewish community do not recognize other segments as Jewish, let us put aside our denominational differences and hearken back to Sinai. One Torah was given to the entire community. Let us stand again at Sinai with our brothers and sisters, and feel the power of community.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Mega-Shul

In my second year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, my seminar leader (a congregational rabbi in New Jersey at the time) predicted the death of the large, high-church American synagogue. The 1,000-plus households synagogue with the vast, ornate sanctuary and a stadium-sized parking lot would soon see its demise he assured me.

I figured he was right. The trend, at least among the younger generation, was toward smaller, more intimate congregations. After all, in the larger cities young Jews were flocking to the do-it-yourself minyans rather than to the large, institutional congregations. At least that was true among Conservative Jews.

However, at the recent Reform Movement‘s Bienniel Convention in San Diego, the focus was on the Mega-Church. The JTA featured this in its article Reform finds inspiration in mega-church techniques”.

I first read of the Jewish interest in the mega-church philosophy back in 2006 when the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles reported that Pastor Rick Warren (right) spoke at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live. Jewschool then reprinted a press release from Jewish Women Watching about Pastor Rick Warren and Synagogue 3000 leader Dr. Ron Wolfson being strange bedfellows. Turns out that when Synagogue 3000 invited Rick Warren (author of “The Purpose Driven Life”) to speak about building a spiritual community, Jewish Women Watching was outraged because of Warren’s conservative views on abortion and homosexuality.

In November, the New York Times picked up on Synagogue 3000’s analysis of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church with Samuel Freedman’s article “An Unlikely Megachurch Lesson”. Freedman writes:

One Sunday morning in 1995, Ron Wolfson and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman braked to a halt in an oddly enlightening traffic jam. The line of cars was creeping toward Saddleback Church in Southern California, whose services were drawing thousands of worshipers. As two Jews, Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Hoffman had crossed the sectarian divide to try to figure out how and why.

As they inched down the road, they spotted a sign marked “For First-Time Visitors.” It directed them to pull into a separate lane and put on emergency blinkers. Bypassing the backup, they soon reached a lot with spaces reserved for newcomers. When Mr. Wolfson and Rabbi Hoffman emerged from their car, an official Saddleback greeter led them into the church.

Those first moments on the perimeter of the church set into motion a dozen years of increasing interaction between a Jewish organization devoted to reinvigorating synagogues and one of the most successful evangelical megachurches in the nation, the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

This has not been a studiously balanced bit of ecumenicism. Synagogue 3000, the group led by Mr. Wolfson, an education professor, and Rabbi Hoffman, a scholar of liturgy, went to the church to figure out what evangelical Christians were doing right that Jews were doing wrong or not at all.

“To put it bluntly,” Mr. Wolfson said, “if there are thousands of people waiting to get in, I want to know what’s going on. I want to know what they’re doing that’s tapping those souls.”

Now after more than a decade of Ron Wolfson (left) studying Saddleback Church‘s success, the entire Reform Movement is looking to Rick Warren for answers. The JTA reports that at the Bienniel, “the mega-church influence was felt as well during Friday night prayers, where 6,000 worshipers gathered in a cavernous room on the convention center’s ground floor for a choreographed production of sight and sound. Multiple cameras projected the service on several enormous screens suspended over the hall. A live band buoyed a service that was conducted almost entirely in song.”

Rick Warren was a speaker at an evening plenary session at the annual Reform Movement convention. He explained how he grew Saddleback so large that he expects 42,000 worshipers to attend his 14 Christmas services next week. And two years ago he rented out Anaheim Stadium on the occasion of his church’s 25th anniversary so he could speak to his entire congregation at once.

I’m not sure that any baseball stadiums will be holding Kol Nidrei in the near future, but the idea of a mega-shul is intriguing.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Marley Minyan

In Jewish prayer there are some liturgical tunes known as “Mi-Sinai tunes.” Not that they are literally from Mt. Sinai, but the terminology expresses their authenticity. As the Congregation Emunath Israel website explains about the history of chazzanut (Jewish cantorial singing):

The Maharil was the Posek (Halachic authority) for the largest Jewish communities of the day – Worms, Speyer, Mayence, Regensberg, etc. He was upset at the “foreign” elements intruding in the melody of tefillah, and he set out to determine which versions were the true ones (Mi-Sinai or Scarbova). He was able to do that because of the Crusades that brought Jews from all over Europe to seek safety in the Rhineland. He examined the different musical strains, and determined which were authentic. His P’sak (Halachic ruling) – that “Ein L’Shanos” – one may not change the musical Nusach of a community, is standardized as Halacha by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 619). You can, of course, see that in the Mishneh Brura as well. He was also responsible for standardizing Nusach Ashkenaz in the form that our Siddur takes…

Well, at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School of Jewish Education (my alma mater), there is now a monthly prayer group that incorporates tunes that are not “Mi-Sinai” but more likely “Mi-Woodstock.” The JTA reports that this prayer group is “part guided meditation, part sing-along, part traditional prayer and part dorm-room musical jam that includes instruments ranging from guitars to didgeridos.”

My feeling is that this is what the Davidson School is all about: Jewish educators praying together, experimenting with tefillah, and finding the spiritual nexus between the Jewish liturgy (psalms, blessings, etc.) and popular music (Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, etc.). For those who would object to the use of musical instruments on Shabbat, rest assured that this “Jam Davening” takes place during the week.

Rabbi Danny NevinsMy teacher Rabbi Danny Nevins (right), who is the new dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, is a great drummer who has been hosting drum circles in his office for rabbinical students at the Seminary. The fusion of jamming and davening will bring more passion to JTS and by extension to Conservative synagogues. As evidenced by the popular Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (B.J.) synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, lively music during prayer draws crowds and helps bring people closer to God.

Jacob Berkman writes in the JTA article:

Jam Davening draws about double the audience of a typical learning minyan, participants say. Now the group is trying to figure out how to bring Jam Davening to a wider audience, first by inviting the broader seminary community into the minyan, then by taking the idea to individual synagogues. This comes at a time when music is rapidly being introduced into Conservative synagogues.

Musical instruments had been excluded from Conservative synagogues on Shabbat partially because of Jewish law and partially as a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago. But starting in the 1950s, the movement allowed Conservative congregations to decide for themselves whether to use instruments.

Now as the movement debates whether Jews should be praying for the rebuilding of the Temple or just Jerusalem — and about whether or not the use of electricity on Shabbat is banned — the use of instruments has also come under “healthy debate,” according to Rabbi Moshe Edelman, the director of the Committee on Congregational Standards for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Also, members of the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly are working on a paper to address the issue, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish law and formerly the head of the committee.

What do you think about Jam Davening? Leave your comments below.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller